The heroine of director-choreographer Benjamin Millepied’s Carmen (★★★☆☆) isn’t the wanton temptress of Bizet’s classic opera. Portrayed by Scream queen Melissa Barrera, this raven-haired Carmen might put a bullet in a man if she has to, but that’s because she’s a survivor, not a betrayer.
In fact, her journey in this dance- and music-driven drama begins with a warning from her late mother, voiced from the beyond, that men are not to be trusted.
All men, or just one man, madre says, it’s all the same: they yearn for the tears, milk, and blood of womanhood. Mother makes a rock-solid point, borne out by the succession of hungry, violent men hounding Carmen’s path from Mexico to Los Angeles.
Traveling on foot with a group of migrants trekking north to the U.S. border through the Chihuahuan Desert, Carmen fatefully runs into one violent man, though, whose heart, contrary to her mother’s warning, appears to pump blood, not sand.
Ex-Marine Aidan, embodied by Aftersun Oscar nominee Paul Mescal as still waters running deeper than we can know, is introduced working out his boxing moves on a heavy bag hung from a carport. He’s hungry, but held back by post-combat trauma he can’t express.
Hoping to jog his spirit, and his bank account, his sister Julieanne (Nicole da Silva) hooks Aidan up with the local civilian Border Patrol, whose trigger-happy leader incites the deadly gunfight that throws Aidan and Carmen together, on the run from her enemies, his enemies, and the law.
The first feature film from Millepied — former dance director of the Paris Opera Ballet, and choreographer of Black Swan — adapts Prosper Mérimée’s novella Carmen and its inspiration, The Gypsies, a narrative poem by Alexander Pushkin, into a rapturous visual ballet, blending dialogue, music by the brilliant Nicholas Britell (Moonlight), a few original songs, and dance.
Mescal, flattening his natural brogue into a flat, indiscernible American accent, sings and strums a sweetly sad ballad, laying Aidan’s open heart on the line.
Barrera, who, before she was dodging Ghostface, was high-kicking through the streets of Uptown Manhattan in In the Heights, serenades a fearful young migrant with a haunting melody, and later, performs a gorgeously-sung lament of impossible love.
The singing gives way to a luscious tango partnering Carmen with a handsome dancer from the enigmatic dive run by her godmother Masilda, played by the one and only Rossy de Palma, who delivers a typically impassioned, soulful turn.
The presence of Pedro Almodóvar’s illustrious muse signals, along with touches of magical realism, and the expressive costumes and choreography, the film’s bent towards artsy eccentricity, despite the ripped-from-the-headlines premise of a fatal standoff between migrants and a border patrol.
Millepied, with screenwriters Alexander Dinelaris and Loïc Barrère, has concocted a fable, not a screed or exposé, but a fairy-tale romance set in the iconic American West. Cinematographer Jörg Widmer shoots ribbons of highway laced through fields of golden grasses under bright blue skies with a foreigner’s fascination for the earthy palette and harsh terrain.
Carmen and Aidan hit the road in an ’88 Chevy pickup chased by muscle cars. In a different era, they’d be puffing clouds of Marlboros, too.
The pair generates plenty of heat in a sexy moonlit dance duet, and a brief love scene that unfolds like a tempestuous pas de deux. Barrera and Mescal’s obvious physical chemistry, however, can’t disguise that the film expends little effort, story-wise, shoring up their attraction beyond necessity in a hectic moment, and plain lust. They’re both two decent-seeming people, yet, ultimately, those still waters don’t run that deep.
But the view is gorgeous. Throughout, Widmer keeps the camera in smooth motion in sync with the action, be it acts of violence, or of rhythm and romance.
Millepied keeps the styles of music and choreography varied, taking us from Romani-inspired flamenco to a hip-hop-inflected boxing match dance number that plays like Stomp meets Fight Club. Dense with the atmosphere of desire, danger, and minor-key melancholy, it’s the world the film creates, more than the romance inside it, that seduces and wins the heart.
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